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Beyond ‘I Love You’: 5 Tips For Navigating Romance in Japan

It’s that time of the year again — the countdown to Valentine's Day (and its alter ego White Day) begins in Japan. Are you ready to let that special someone know how you feel? Here are five ways to tell it from your heart — without sounding like a cheesy anime character.

By 6 min read

Mark your calendars because it’s time for Japan’s strange dating rituals surrounding Valentine’s Day (when it’s women who give sweets to men) and White Day (when men return the favor a month later). Valentine’s Day, you’ve no doubt heard of, but things work a bit differently here. Women in Japan have taken the adage, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” literally. It’s customary for women to profess their love through 本命ほんめいチョコ (honmei choco, or ornate handmade chocolates or expensive boxes of sweets), while begrudgingly gifting male coworkers mini boxes of 義理ぎりチョコ (giri choco, or obligatory chocolates).

The counterpart to Valentine’s Day, White Day, is held on March 14. On this day, men return gifts of おかえしチョコ (okaeshi choco, or returned favor chocolates) and reciprocate their feelings of affection with a 三倍返さんばいし (sanbai kaeshi, or a gift that is expected to be three times the value of the first one).

If you’re wondering how to navigate this season of romance, we’ve got you covered. If you’re a foreigner working in Japan, it’s a good idea to at least attempt to adhere to the country’s rules for V-Day and W-Day at work. But say you have a special someone, you don’t even need to wait until Valentine’s Day and White Day to let them know how you feel or to return their feelings of affection.

We’ve rounded up some creative and romantic ways to say “I love you” using contemporary Japanese that go beyond the textbook but won’t make you feel too cheesy. Perhaps just as important, we’ll also share with you some tips on what not to do.

1. Compliments

Compliments

Don’t

When it comes to compliments, you’re treading on dangerous territory with kawaii (cute). Say it too much and it turns into a hollow word. Japan may be the land of kawaii, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner identifies with all things childish and girly. Don’t use kawaii to let your special one know what you really adore about them.

Do

Instead, level up your use of kawaii by using it to describe your partner’s actions, not looks. Is there something about the way they touch their hair or get so lost in concentration? Let them know how much you love their little quirks with 仕草しぐさ可愛いかわいい (shigusa ga kawaii, or roughly saying that a certain gesture is cute): かみさわ仕草しぐさ可愛いかわいい  (“Kami wo sawaru shigusa ga kawaii,” orI like the way you touch your hair.” )

2. Showing affection

Showing affection

Don’t

In Japan, kabedon (literally, kabe, or wall, and the “don!” or “thud!” of someone hitting it) is the act of sandwiching the target of your romantic interest between you and a wall. This scene plays out in countless TV shows, anime and manga. A tough guy character presses his unsuspecting love interest up against a wall, leaving the target frightened, yet inexplicably attracted to this bizarre display of machismo. No matter what the world of Japanese media would have you believe, kabedon is a major no-no. Encroaching on someone’s personal space is rude and downright creepy.

Do

If you really feel the urge to recreate a scene from your favorite manga, hold hands with your special someone on a chilly day and put your clasped hands in your coat pocket. Romantic and practical.

3. Saying “I love you”

 

Saying I love you

Don’t

There’s no need to go overboard memorizing romantic lines to help you to profess your love in Japanese. What may work for Tanaka-san in your textbook might not go over well in real life. Worse — what if you mix up your lines and end up offending instead of wooing?

No matter what the world of Japanese media would have you believe, kabedon is a major no-no.

Do

The biggest hurdle of professing your love in Japan may no doubt be linguistic. Perhaps あいしてる (aishiteru, or “I love you”) feels too heavy and intense at this particular point in your relationship, while きだよ (suki da yo, or “I like you”) comes off as juvenile. How to cross that hurdle? Go native! Profess your love in your native language. Even if it can’t be translated directly, honesty is always appreciated.

4. Going Facebook official

Going Facebook official

 

Don’t

A tried and true staple of Japanese romance is 告白こくはく (kokuhaku). This is the act of directly confessing your romantic interest  along the of lines of: “好きだ。ってください.” (Suki da. Tsukiatte kudasai, or “I like you. Please go steady with me.”) But, it doesn’t mean that you have to adhere to this “rule.” After all, if it feels awkward to you, it will probably come across that way. Talk about a mood killer!

Do

If you want to know where the relationship is going, don’t beat around the bush — just ask: “わたしたちってどういう関係かんけい? “Watashi tachi tte douiu kankei?” or “Are we dating or not?).” Read between the lines, but accept rejection graciously. If you’re prepared to fight for your love, just remember to avoid anything that might be categorized as ストーカー行為こうい (sutoka-koui, or stalking).

5. Proposals

 

Don’t

If you’re proposing on the most romantic day of year, then beware of old-fashioned lines like: ずっと味噌汁みそしるつくつづけてください (“Zutto miso shiro wo tsukuritsudukete kudasai” or “Please continue making miso soup for me for the rest of my life”). Not only is it unromantic, it’s incredibly dated. Even if your partner truly enjoys cooking, don’t conceal your proposal by asking the love of your life if they will cook for your everyday. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Do

Whether you decide to propose with a flash mob, over a romantic dinner or by just casually dropping it in a conversation — seal the deal with a proposal that complements and is straight to the point: “その笑顔えがお一生いっしょうていたい 。結婚けっこんしてください” (“Sono egao wo ishho miteitai. Kekkon shite kudasai” or “I want to see that smile of yours every day for the rest of my life. Will you marry me?”)

Now that you know how to navigate romance in Japan by using phrases that won’t have you sounding like a robot or a character from an old Japanese TV show, it’s time to put these lessons to the test. Let us know if you’ve found success with these tips or have a few of your own to share.

Wishing you the best in your romantic endeavors! (すえながくおしあわせに! Suenagaku oshiawase ni! )

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